When is it okay to boycott art?

Is it okay to boycott art because you find the artist’s beliefs distasteful?

I’m thinking out loud hear, so please bear with me.  I’m not sure where this is heading, but I’d like to hear your opinion.  I read an article in today’s NY Times about a boycott of the new Harrison Ford movie, Ender’s Game.  I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I need to talk about Seattle artist, Charles Krafft.

According to a Seattle Times newspaper story dated March 23, 2013, “Once celebrated by museums and collectors for his playful tweaking of Nazi iconography, renowned Seattle artist Charles Krafft has lately become the art world’s problem child.”

The conventional wisdom in the art world has been that Krafft’s art pokes fun at the Nazi regime (an emperor has no clothes sort of message).  However, in recent interviews, Krafft has said that he is skeptical about the historical truth of the Holocaust.  Now museums are struggling to decide whether or not it is acceptable to display Krafft’s work.  What do you think?

Would it be different if the subject matter of Krafft’s work did not include Nazi iconography?  What if Krafft painted ballerinas?  Degas was an anti-Semite.  Should we boycott the National Gallery of Art for displaying the paintings and sculpture of Degas?

Which brings me to  Ender’s Game.  The boycott is a reaction to opinions expressed by Orson Scott Card, the author of the novel on which the movie is based.  Card is a Mormon, opposed to same-sex marriage.  I disagree with Card’s view of homosexuality, but it seems a pretty big jump from that to boycotting a movie based on his book.  I should probably mention that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are not a subject of the movie.  According to the NY Times, “Glaad, a gay-rights organization that tracks media, reviewed the script and found nothing to criticize.”  So the boycott is not a response to anything in the movie itself (or in the book) but rather to a belief held by the author.

My parents refused to buy a German car for half a century, following World War Two because of connections, real or perceived, between the German auto industry and the Nazi regime.  Certainly, it is acceptable to refrain from making a purchase of any kind (whether the purchase is an automobile or a movie ticket) because you find the person/company objectionable.  I get that.  And I understand that when enough people refrain from making the purchase, it draws attention to an issue.  In that respect, a boycott can be an effective tool for social change.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I can hold artists to a litmus test.  I will not turn my back on Degas the next time I’m in the Princeton Art Museum.  Neither will I change the channel the next time I come upon The Last Samurai just because Tom Cruise believes in Scientology.

There are plenty of valid reasons not to go see Ender’s Game.  Is Orson Scott Card’s opinion on same-sex marriage one of them?  I’m curious what you think.


13 thoughts on “When is it okay to boycott art?

  1. I think it’s always okay to decline to appreciate someone’s art, for whatever reason. I don’t like movies with torture in them. It’s not because I don’t think people should make movies with torture in them, it’s just because I don’t like to watch people get tortured. That’s the distinction I make for myself, personally. I would not decline to watch/read/see/appreciate someone’s art because I find their views abhorrent or their ideas unpalatable, even if those ideas are reflected in the art. I personally believe that the communication of potentially offensive ideas is one of the legitimate roles of art. As far as declining to watch/read/see/appreciate someone’s art because the author has personal beliefs I don’t like, which are not reflected in the art in any way, eh, I guess I understand the impulse but it seems kind of stupid to me. To me, that’s like refusing to accept the Declaration of Independence as a groundbreaking historical document because Thomas Jefferson was a slaveowner. I mean, all kinds of great people have bad qualities. Because they’re people. It’s a little…nuts….to expect only perfect people to do great things. Because there are no perfect people.


    1. I know what you mean, but I have to admit that I am a fan of Leadbelly who wrote the blues classic Goodnight Irene. Leadbelly was convicted of murder and I guess I’m not really supporting him when I listen to his music, considering that he’s been dead since before I was born, but still he was a murderer. Then again, the Governor of Louisiana at the time, after listening to the song, commuted Leadbelly’s sentence. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Perhaps one day I’ll figure out just what that lesson might be.


  2. I would avoid someone’s art if… well, I guess if people or animals were hurt to MAKE their art. Riht now, I cannot think of another reason. I mean, I disagree with my friends’ and family members’ opinions all the time; that doesn’t stop me from reading what they write or admiring what they draw or build. I disagree with things that many stand-up comedians have to say, but I still think that they are funny, and I still like to watch them perform… I guess I’m just not the boycotting type.

    The Enders Game “boycott” sounds stupid. Maybe it is just to get a little publicity? You now how it goes…


  3. I floundered about for awhile trying to answer this and couldn’t come to any firm conclusion, so I guess I will just say good question and leave it at that. 😀 There aren’t always ideal answers to real world questions. Or answers without problematic aspects.


  4. I think it depends on a lot of things. I personally think that the art and the artist’s political and moral views can be separated, unless the artist makes a point of including them in the art. The fuzzy separation you mention perhaps inspires the viewer to think- nothing wrong with that. As for a movie, see it or don’t and reasons are our own and should remain so. I’m not a big fan of telling people what to think.


  5. Still thinking about this…I can’t help but wonder, perhaps insultingly (not to you, and not intentionally), if some of the hand-wringing stems from an over-estimation of the importance of the self-proclaimed ‘arts community.’ Meaning that if one sees oneself as the arbiter and protector of anything, one will get into all manner of mischief in the exercise of that role. Not everything needs to be micromanaged. Many things work themselves out, especially if the people are allowed freedom of conscience and choice.
    Just a thought. *shrug*


    1. What I find problematic is the distinction between the individual decision not to support a certain artist as opposed to the organized attempt to constrain the choices of others with respect to that artist.


      1. That is definitely problematic. I can certainly understand the perspective of the boycotters. Responsibility can be tricky. Some things feel like our responsibility, seem like they might be our responsibility, do everything they can to convince us they are our responsibility, when in fact they might not be. Or it is our responsibility, but trying to do something causes more harm than doing nothing. Tricky, tricky, tricky.


  6. It’s a really good question and I’ve been terribly inconsistent if I consider spending cash to purchase entry or a product as supporting that work or product. I was going to see Ender’s Game and I am supportive of GLBT rights. I don’t think Card used this work to promote his views on gay marriage. I won’t, however, buy Chik-fil-A because of their leadership’s open support of anti-gay legislation. What if Card donated to anti-gay legislation? I don’t know that. If he did, it would make me want to not pay to see the movie. Maybe I steal from Card instead and try to watch it illegally? Ugh. Terrible.

    I saw The Pianist but I change the station whenever Chris Brown or Michael Jackson are on the radio. Inconsistent as all that.

    Curious if we can we agree on one thing. None of your money went to support Battlefield Earth?


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